Of course, stage names are commonplace in Hollywood. Pen names are relatively common among authors as well.
But can you sue under a pen name? Well – only for a very good reason. Nearly all states have a “fictitious names” statute. In Illinois, the statute is 735 ILCS 5/2-401, and it says that unless a party name is a “misnomer” – an honest mistake – you can only sue under a fictitious name if you file a motion and demonstrate good cause.
So what happens if you skip the motion and sue under a false name? That’s the issue the Illinois Supreme Court will address tomorrow morning in Santiago v. E. W. Bliss Company [pdf].
The plaintiff in Santiago was allegedly injured working with a punch press. In May 2008, he sued a number of defendants who had manufactured the components of the machine. In the complaint, the plaintiff was identified as "Juan Ortiz." Six months later, he filed a First Amended Complaint, again naming the plaintiff as Juan Ortiz. On at least three occasions, plaintiff signed verifications for interrogatory responses as Juan Ortiz.
But the problem was, plaintiff wasn’t Juan Ortiz. In May 2009 — a full year after filing suit — plaintiff was deposed, and conceded that his name was Rogasciano Santiago. The plaintiff testified that he had held several jobs under each name. He used a false birth date as Juan Ortiz and had a state-issued ID card in that name. On the other hand, he had a driving permit as Rogasciano Santiago.
In the weeks following the deposition, Santiago moved for leave of court to file a Second Amended Complaint; the proposed SAC was identical to his First Amended Complaint, but for substituting his real name. Plaintiff’s motion was granted in September 2009.
Defendant moved to dismiss on a variety of grounds, alleging that the original complaint was a fraud on the court, or that the original complaint was null and void, and thus the plaintiff’s Second Amended Complaint — filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations — was time-barred. The court denied the motion, but certified the question of whether (1) under the circumstances, the plaintiff’s complaint had to be dismissed with prejudice as a sanction; or (2) whether the complaint could not relate back to the initial filing, and thus was time-barred.
The Appellate Court wrote that the effect of intentionally filing suit under a false name was a question of first impression.
One by one, the Court reviewed every possible grounds for sanctioning plaintiff. First, sanctions could not be justified as contempt. Plaintiff had not failed to comply with an order and the court’s order contained no purge condition, so civil contempt was out. Nor was criminal contempt possible, since the mere fact of intentionally filing under a false name did not subvert the court’s authority or the administration of justice.
The sanctions could be justified under Supreme Court Rule 137, the Court found. Rule 137 is essentially *Illinois’ Rule 11 — the attorney’s signature on a pleading constitutes a warranty that the pleading is well founded in fact and law. The Court held that sanctions could be justified under Rule 137, and remanded for determination of whether the plaintiff’s attorney knew his real name. The plaintiff’s conduct violated Section 2-401 of the Code of Civil Procedure as well, the Court found. Section 2-401 provides that parties must set forth in their pleading the names of all parties who seek relief. Finally, the Court held that plaintiff could be sanctioned under Supreme Court Rule 213, which governs verification of discovery, and under the court’s inherent authority to control its docket.
The Court harshly criticized the plaintiff’s conduct, writing that in "addition to later willfully failing to properly disclose his true identity in discovery, plaintiff’s very first filing in the circuit court contained a fundamental lie. This is inexcusable." Nevertheless, dismissal was not mandatory. Instead, dismissal as a sanction was discretionary. The Court directed trial courts to consider the rules violated; prejudice; whether a lesser sanction would cure the violation, deter future violations and protect the integrity of the court system.
Having answered the first half of the certified question, the court turned to the statute of limitations. Rejecting the notion that the plaintiff’s conduct was a "misnomer" — a mistake in the caption — the Court held that the plaintiff’s Second Amended Complaint was time-barred. Because the original complaint deliberately filed using a false name was null and void, there was nothing for the amended complaint to relate back to.
A minor bit of intrigue for we Illinois Supreme Court court-watchers: Santiago was originally included in the Court’s upcoming opinions for Thursday, April 19. Only now, four months later, is the opinion being released. What happened to change the Court’s mind, we will likely never know.